“Tell me, Jernigan, how are you?”
I don’t know how that question hits other people. Maybe just as part of the prosaic rhythm of social life. But something about it touches my heart — that is, when it’s asked sincerely, and by the right person. Janet, the customer sitting next to me, qualified on both counts.
“Oh, I’m doing pretty well,” I replied. “For some reason, this is always a tough time of year for me. The bleakness makes me bleak. It gets better when the snow begins to fall in earnest and things brighten up.”
“I understand,” Janet said, nodding her head. Her face is quite round, with deep-set eyes and thick eyebrows. She wears her white hair in a no-nonsense bob that suits her perfectly. “Here in Vermont, it’s hard not to be affected by the climate.”
Since retiring many years ago — I think she’s coming up on age 90 — Janet has resided in a retirement community in Shelburne. She’s told me that she was “a librarian” in New York State during her professional life. Only through the grapevine did I discover that she was the head librarian for the entire state system. Modesty is but one of her endearing qualities.
“You said you’re going to the Bishop Booth Center at Rock Point?” I asked, gazing down at the overnight bag on the floor by her feet. “Are you attending, like, a conference of some kind?”
Janet chuckled and said, “No, my conference days are long past. This will be a spiritual retreat sponsored by my Episcopalian Church. I’ll be there for a few days, until it ends on Sunday.”
“That sounds wonderful. Will there be lots of sermons and singing of hymns and the like?”
“No, quite the opposite. It will be four days of silence, for prayer and meditation. No talking whatsoever.”
“Holy smokes!” The expression flew out of me, aghast at the prospect. “That would be torture for me, spiritual or otherwise. And I happen to know that you like to gab as well. How are you going to last four days amidst all these interesting people without conversation?”
“Well, I suppose I’m going to find out,” Janet replied with a surprisingly hearty laugh for a near-nonagenarian. “Actually, Jernigan, I’ve done this sort of thing before and it quite suits me. The hardest part is the meals. Can you imagine sitting around a table passing the bowls and platters of food without exchanging at least pleasantries? It’s a challenge.”
“Well, look at that,” I said pointing to my right at the Tuscan Kitchen restaurant. The roadside sign was draped with a banner reading, “Closed.” “Did you ever eat there?”
“No, I don’t think I did. I do remember going once when it was Perry’s Fish House.”
“Maybe that was the problem. Everyone can grasp what a ‘fish house’ is, but what’s a ‘Tuscan kitchen’? Some kind of Italian cuisine?”
“I believe so, Jernigan,” Janet replied, and we laughed together. “It’s the lighter side of Italian cuisine, good stuff like bruschetta and risotto. We should have gone when we had the chance!”
We swung through the South End, traversed the Waterfront district and spun around Battery Park to the beginning of North Avenue. It was time to ask about my customer’s vocation, which, when all is said and done, may be the legacy for which she’s best remembered.
“Any new poems lately, Janet?”
“Yes, a few. You know, it’s a long process for me, the poetry composition. It’s nothing I can rush.”
Late in life, well into her seventies, Janet began to study and write poetry. Her stuff won some awards, and in 2005, a collection was published, an exquisitely printed volume of some 50 poems. This past summer, I lived with this book, taking it with me on walks along the waterfront, where I would sit facing the big lake and imbibe her words — slowly, as if sipping the finest wine. And, like wine, her poetry intoxicated me.
Some of the poems had me laughing out loud, such as these lines from the autobiographical “Profile”:
What are the subject’s attitudes towards animals?
Prefers dogs without tutus, cats without
glasses. Scared of mice.
But mostly, Janet explores the natural world and the process of aging. And she does so with a generosity of spirit that all but leaps off the page. That was what kept me entranced all summer long.
Just past Burlington High School but before the street terminates at the campground, two stone pillars mark the entrance to Rock Point. There, within 150 tranquil shoreline acres, sit both the Rock Point School and the Bishop Booth Center. We bumped along the narrow dirt road until it came out at the small complex of dormitories and conference space nestled among the trees.
“We have to do this again,” said Janet, her eyes as bright as a fireplace at Christmas. “These retreats are a great excuse for us to chat.”
I laughed and said, “Well, Janet, all the chatting comes to an end right now.”
As we parted ways, a few more of her lines of verse popped into my head:
I remember the bright waltzes,
the fragrance, the feather-weight
of day. And we, we bore the sheen
once more. How luminous is joy.